Indy firm launches virtual reality-focused effort to fill talent pipeline – Indianapolis Business Journal

Indianapolis-based VisionThree Inc. launches an ambitious effort to harness the power of virtual reality to solve the state’s ongoing talent shortage.

Since its inception in 2003, VisionThree has made a name for itself creating interactive touchscreens and virtual reality content for clients such as Eli Lilly and Co., Indiana University, Rolls-Royce, Raytheon Technologies and Siemens.

Now it is venturing into new territory with a project it calls V3Connect. The $80 million effort aims to place virtual reality career labs in every high school, community college and university in Indiana by 2025. The project has been in the works since late last year and organizers plan to roll out a test version in September.

The Concept: Companies pay VisionThree to create custom content that showcases career opportunities in their company and gives a taste of what it’s like to work in select jobs. Students access the virtual reality content through a career lab at their school, giving them the opportunity to discover jobs and career opportunities they would never have considered otherwise.

Tony Denhart

A big goal, sure, but the project has already received support from numerous partners, including the Indiana Economic Development Corp. and Ivy Tech Community College, who see great potential in V3Connect.

Tony Denhart, executive vice president of workforce and talent at the IEDC, said V3Connect is another tool the state can use in its efforts to build a strong talent pipeline. “We need to take some big, bold steps — and I see this as a big, bold move.”

In the trial version, VisionThree sends a mobile VR career lab across the state. The lab will feature content from a fictional company, Acme Engine, to allow VisionThree to collect feedback on what users like and how they interact with the system. VisionThree will also partner with a Vanderbilt University scholar for guidance on effective content development.

The company plans to start adding custom content from partner companies in October.

Once students put on the VR headsets, they will select areas of interest and then have an immersive experience based on those interests. For example, a student who enjoys interacting with people can learn what it is like to work as a salesperson at Company X. Another who likes hands-on work can experience a day in the life of an engineer or technician, in a virtual version of a company’s production space interacting with equipment. Students can learn about opportunities from employers in different parts of the state, depending on their preference for urban or rural living.

“Every user has their own experience with this,” said Heather Jackson, Chief Revenue Officer of VisionThree.

VisionThree wants to use virtual reality to help high school students experience different careers and decide which track interests them most. The goal is to put virtual reality labs in every high school. (Image courtesy of VisionThree)

Early interest

Jackson said VisionThree has already identified several companies interested in signing up, pending the results of the pilot.

“We’ve got several that are up and running,” she said, adding that VisionThree’s original goal is to sign up 15 partner companies by the end of the year.

Heather Jackson

Jackson said the number of companies VisionThree can add over time will be determined by its development capabilities. The 20-strong company expects to grow its workforce by about 30% in the coming months, in part to handle the additional work it expects to collect through V3Connect.

The first 15 partner companies will pay a discounted rate of approximately $75,000 to cover the cost of creating their custom content. The compensation for subsequent companies will double to $150,000. Companies will also be asked to pay an annual fee to update and refresh their content, with fees varying depending on how much work is involved.

Project supporters say V3Connect can connect with students in a whole new way and help build the state’s talent pipeline, especially in key areas such as manufacturing, healthcare, logistics and entrepreneurship.

“It’s not just an educational resource, it’s a direct connection to the needs of the workforce,” said Caroline Dowd-Higgins, Ivy Tech’s vice president of career counseling and employer relations.

Caroline Dowd Higgins

Dowd-Higgins said Ivy Tech plans to install a V3Connect career lab on one of its campuses within six months, though that location has not yet been identified. After probing the success of that site, Ivy Tech will decide whether to add labs at additional sites.

Dowd-Higgins said she’s especially excited about V3Connect’s potential to help both current and prospective students. People can come to the career lab to learn about potential career paths, after which Ivy Tech can match users with the degree or certification programs needed for those careers.

“We believe this is an investment that will deliver great returns to drive recruitment, retention and job placement,” said Dowd-Higgins.

Ivy Tech is working with VisionThree to determine the cost of hosting a V3Connect career lab, she said — costs that include providing a safe space for the equipment, maintaining the lab, and perhaps a dedicated staff member to run the lab.

To make the program more attractive to schools, VisionThree is working with an outside company to set up dedicated internet connections for each lab.

Virtual reality applications require a reliable high-speed Internet connection, and having the career lab on its own system means schools don’t sacrifice their other online needs, said Dawn Lang, VisionThree vice president of strategic partnerships.

“If we make it as easy as possible for [schools] use it, they will use it,” Lang said.

The dedicated connections, she said, will be especially important for schools in rural areas where high-speed internet isn’t always available. She said several universities and school districts, including districts in rural areas, have already expressed interest in hosting career labs.

If a school can’t afford some of the cost of hosting a lab, Lang said, VisionThree will help it identify grant programs or philanthropic sources to help cover the costs.

Financing

VisionThree describes V3Connect as an $80 million program. That includes everything from content development to hardware, equipment installation and maintenance, and the cost of the internet connections to power every site in the state.

Jackson said she expects about half of the $80 million to come from fees partner companies pay for content development and annual updates. The other half is expected to come from grants, charitable donations and other sources that will help schools and smaller businesses alike cover their participation costs.

Denhart said the IEDC will likely provide some measure of financial support, though he declined to provide details. “We are very early in this partnership.”

He described V3Connect as the “reinvention of recruiting,” which can help break down barriers to career exploration and talent development.

Sometimes, he said, the barrier can be a simple misunderstanding or lack of knowledge about what a particular industry or company is like. Other barriers are geographical. Virtual reality, he said, could eliminate them all.

“It’s going to be difficult for someone in southwestern Indiana to make a field trip to Warsaw, the orthopedic capital of the world,” Denhart gave an example. “This one [virtual reality] will take them there.”

An effort like V3Connect could also help attract companies to Indiana, he said, because it gives them a way to connect directly with potential future employees.

Especially now that skilled talent is so scarce, Denhart said, companies considering an Indiana location are heavily focused on the state’s ability to provide skilled workers. “Workers are the first, the middle and the last thing they talk about.”•

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